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Zambia

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Quick Facts
CapitalLusaka
Governmentrepublic
CurrencyZambian kwacha (ZMK)
Areatotal: 752,614 sq km
water: 11,890 sq km
land: 740,724 sq km
Population9,959,037
LanguageEnglish (official), major vernaculars - Bemba, Kaonda, Lozi, Lunda, Luvale, Nyanja, Tonga, and about 70 other indigenous languages
ReligionChristian 50%-75%, Muslim and Hindu 24%-49%, indigenous beliefs 1%

Zambia is in Central Africa. Roughly the size of Texas, Zambia is a landlocked country, bordered by Tanzania to the northeast, Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the southeast, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the south, a narrow strip of Namibia known as the Caprivi Strip to the southwest, Angola to the west, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the northwest.

Zambia offers travelers some of the world's best safari opportunities, a glimpse into "real Africa," and Victoria Falls, one of the World's Seven Natural Wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Map of Zambia

Regions

Cities

Other destinations

See also African National Parks

Understand

The territory of Northern Rhodesia was administered by the South Africa Company from 1891 until it was taken over by the UK in 1923. During the 1920s and 1930s, advances in mining spurred development and immigration. The name was changed to Zambia upon independence in 1964. In the 1980s and 1990s, declining copper prices and a prolonged drought hurt the economy. Elections in 1991 brought an end to one-party rule, but the subsequent vote in 1996 saw blatant harassment of opposition parties. The election in 2001 was marked by administrative problems with at least two parties filing legal petitions challenging the results. Opposition parties currently hold a majority of seats in the National Assembly.

Get in

Most visitors will require a visa in advance, although there are exceptions for some nationalities (including most bordering countries and a few Western countries like Australia and Ireland). Check with the nearest Zambian embassy for the latest information; the Zambian Embassy to the US has some information on their homepage.

By plane

Zambia's main international gateway is Lusaka. For access to the eastern parts of the country (eg. Chipata), it will be faster to fly into Lilongwe in neighboring Malawi, and cross the border. (However, keep in mind crossing borders in African countries can range from breezy to nightmarish.) Also, Livingstone, near spectacular Victoria Falls, has a small international airport.

By train

TAZARA trains run between New Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. TAZARA's website (http://www.tazara.co.tz/level0/services/passenger_transportation.html) claims this trip takes 38 hours, but these trains break down regularly. If you are on a tight schedule, a train might not be your best option. On the other hand, a train ride between Dar es Salaam and Zambia is a beautiful way to see the countryside and is very economical (under $10).

Several important things to note about this trip, however:

  • Bring water.
  • Immigration officials stamp passports as soon as the train crosses the border -- probably in the middle of the night. Naturally, this is also when thieves work. If you are riding in a first- or second-class cabin, be very careful when opening your door.
  • If you miss the immigration official, they will either: turn you around and send you back to the border; or, arrange for a stamp, pending payment of a "special tax."
  • Immediately upon crossing the border, the crew no longer accepts the currency of the country you just exited. In other words, if you are traveling from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam, the moment you cross the border, your Kwacha is no longer legal tender; you must use Shillings. It is, therefore, a good idea to exchange money before the journey -- blackmarketeers along the railroad offer poor exchange rates.
  • Do not leave valuables near windows, especially at stops.

By car

Vehicles drive on the left side of the road in Zambia.

There are many ways to get into Zambia by car, but the most popular include:

Crossing international borders by car will incur a tax.

Many of the roads in Zambia are in VERY POOR condition. Potholes often take up the entire road, and during the rainy season, large sections of the roads wash away. As you move away from city centers, you will probably encounter dirt roads. Although they might look safe, the dirt is often loose, and the chances of an accident are great.

Remember: there are no Roadside Assistance Packages, and VERY FEW ambulances, tow-trucks, or emergency vehicles of any kind in Zambia (the police often beg for rides from shopkeepers or ex-pats with vehicles).

By bus

International bus routes exist. You can take a bus across the border into Malawi, Zimbabwe, or Tanzania. Immigration might be painstaking, considering the large number of people requiring simultaneous processing.

By boat

Zambia is landlocked, so you should not expect to travel in by boat. An exception, however, is if you enter Zambia through Namibia's Caprivi Strip. In this case, you will have to cross the Zambezi River. You will have 2 options:

  1. You may ride on a ferry (for a dollar); or,
  2. You may hire a local boy with a dug-out canoe to carry you across (for 50 cents).

Get around

By minibus

Minibuses are popular, but they are often irregular, dangerous, and uncomfortable. (To maximize profits, a "conductor" will squeeze as many paying customers -- and their luggage, or katundu (ka-TOON-doo) -- into the bus as possible; whether or not the customers are comfortable is irrelevant.) In terms of meeting locals, however, this method is among the best, and it can provide a traveler with a truly "authentic" experience.

By bus

Larger, more sophisticated "luxury coaches" exist, too. These tend to be more reliable and safer; they depart on-time; they have dedicated space for guests and luggage; and tickets may be purchased in advance. Luxury coaches are much more comfortable and are virtually guaranteed to arrive, but they might seem "generic" to a seasoned traveler.

By car

Vehicles drive on the left side of the road in Zambia.

Car rental agencies exist in Zambia, but the costs are potentially great. Not only are rental rates high ($100/day), but many of the roads in Zambia are in VERY POOR condition. Potholes often take up the entire road, and during the rainy season, large sections of the roads wash away. As you move away from city centers, you will probably encounter dirt roads. Although they might look solid, the dirt is often loose, and the chances of an accident are huge.

Although you are not likely to get lost driving in Zambia (there are only a few roads), you are likely to underestimate the destructive power of these roads and damage a rental vehicle, or worse, yourself!

  • Remember: there are no Roadside Assistance Packages, and VERY FEW ambulances, tow-trucks, or emergency vehicles of any kind in Zambia.

By train

Trains run in the central and northern portions of the country and are relatively reliable and safe.

By thumb

Hitchhiking in Zambia is popular, although it can be extremely hit-or-miss. Nevertheless, hitchhiking does not carry with it the same stigma in Zambia as it does in the States; you are unlikely to be harmed, and you might make a great connection.

In Zambia, travelers do not "thumb" a ride. The proper method for flagging transportation is:

  1. Pile your luggage near the road.
  2. Sit in the shade.
  3. When you see/hear a vehicle, jump up.
  4. Rush to your luggage.
  5. From your shoulder, wave your entire arm up and down, palm open and facing the ground, as though you are fanning someone in front of you.
  6. Hope the vehicle stops.

Talk

Thanks to its former colonial status, English is the official language of Zambia. It is the language most often spoken in schools, on the radio, in government offices, etc. However, there are over 70 different Bantu dialects spoken throughout the country.

Many urban Zambians will speak at least passable English. As you move into the rural areas, though, expect communication to become more difficult. Nevertheless, do not be surprised to find a rural Zambian that speaks flawless English and, in fact, knows more about your country than you do!

The most important thing to remember when speaking to Zambians is to greet them. When you first approach a Zambian, always begin by asking, "How are you?" ("Muli Bwanji?" is the most recognized form) even if you do not care. They will consider you very respectful.

Buy

Originally, the Kwacha -- meaning "sunrise," so-named to celebrate Zambia's independence -- was tied to the US dollar; conversion was simple. However, in the late-90's, the Kwacha devalued rapidly. Over the past few years, though, the Kwacha has remained relatively stable, hovering around $1 = ZK 4500.

If you want to sound like a local, refer to "1000 kwacha" as "1 pin." In the '90's, the kwacha devalued so rapidly that the government didn't have time to produce new, larger bank notes. To pay for things, Zambians often had to bundle -- or "pin" together -- large numbers of small bills.

ATMs may be found in major cities, but you should not depend on them to be functional. Also, some shops and restaurants might accept debit or credit cards. Although using forms of payment other than cash is growing in popularity, you should not depend on credit to get around the country.

Instead, the most promising way to obtain cash is by Traveler's Cheque. Although many hotels and banks will process TCs, keep in mind the laws of supply and demand -- the more remote you are, the poorer the exchange rate will be. Plan carefully, and try to get an adequate cash supply when passing through larger cities.

Most shopkeepers advertise fixed prices and are unwilling to negotiate, but this is not a given. On the other hand, most "freelance" salesmen -- vendors selling curios; taxi drivers; etc. -- who do not post their prices are usually willing to negotiate. As a (very) general rule of thumb, assume the first price they mention is at least double the amount they will accept. You should not be afraid to barter -- after all, Zambians bargain among themselves -- but try not to get carried away with saving a few pennies.

Finally, keep in mind the Zambian custom of mbsela (em-buh-SAY-la) -- giving a freebie when more than one item is purchased. If you buy a few small items, do not be shy about asking for your mbsela.

Eat

Food options in the major cities are great. In Lusaka or Livingstone, for example, you can find almost any food you like. Fast food -- to include burgers, pizza, and fried chicken -- is very popular in Zambia. For sit-down meals, ethnic eateries (thanks to a significant ex-pat population) are popular. Especially noteworthy is the Sunday brunch at The Intercontinental; and if you like Indian food, be sure to hit The Dil. Of course, Game Parks often cater to wealthy -- usually foreign -- visitors; therefore, high-quality Western meals can be found easily.

Outside the larger cities, however, you might be a little underwhelmed with food options. Along the major roadways, you will find "tuck shops" featuring packaged cookies or Take Away Meals -- meat pies or sausage rolls, for instance -- which may or may not satisfy you. In rural towns, small restaurants serve only the staple food, nsima -- usually a maize-based mixture eaten by hand -- coupled with some meat (either beef, fish, or chicken). Nsima is "authentic Africa." However, because nsima is bland, it is, ironically, an acquired taste.

Finally, in terms of hygiene outside the major cities, you are unlikely to find a proper washroom with running water. You will probably be given a bowl of water, a piece of soap, and a (damp) towel. Therefore, some travelers bring small bottles of anti-bacterial hand soap with them.

Drink

Coke products are accessible and cheap (less than a quarter a bottle), and beer is everywhere. South African Breweries bottles and distributes Castle Beer in Zambia, and Zambia has its own brew -- Mosi -- which has several "varieties." (Additionally, Zambezi Lager is a local "micro-brew.") Beers run around 35 cents. If you are near the borders, you are likely to find Carlsbergs (good, from Malawi), Simbas (excellent, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Tuskers (strong, from Kenya). Certainly, depending on who you know, there are other imported beers you can find.

In rural areas, there are opportunities to drink local "homebrews." A wide variety of homebrews exist in Zambia, from beers made from honey (in the Southern province of the country), to wine made from tea leaves (in the Eastern portion of the country). Also, there is masese (muh-SE-say) or "seven-days-beer," made from maize, millet, or casava. Finally, there is cachasu (cuh-CHA-suh) a spirit distilled from anything Zambians can get their hands on -- including battery acid and fertilizer. For obvious reasons, therefore, it is better to avoid this moonshine.

On a final note, most men at bars are relaxing, while many women at bars are working. Therefore, if you are a single woman in a Zambian bar, be aware that you might be approached and offered the opportunity to do something you did not intend to do.

Sleep

Accommodation in Zambia runs the gamut. In Zambia, you can sleep in an top-notch hotel for a few hundred dollars (such as The Intercontinental); you can stay in an independent hotel (like the The Ndeke), for about $50; or you can opt for a budget experience, and spend $5 to $10 (at ChaChaCha Backpackers) for a highly adequate space. These are only a few of the options. Of course, choosing accommodation off the beaten path might be might be more exciting but unsafe.

Outside the but cities or tourist areas, however, you might be hard-pressed to find quality accommodation. If your tastes run to the elegant -- or even if you demand constant electricity -- you might want to reconsider venturing too deep into the bush. However, if you seek an enjoyable, memorable, and authentic night at a local hotel, you might be pleasantly surprised (e.g., Lundazi's Castle Hotel is like no other in the world).

Learn

The University of Zambia is the official university. However, it is not affordable for most Zambians. There are also Technical Schools throughout Zambia, and Teacher's Training Colleges are found in each Provincial Capital, providing two year's coursework for about $300.

For tourists, the biggest educational experiences would likely be:

  • Visit a game park and learn as much as possible about the area's animals from the guides. Guides can be an incredible source of information. Remember to tip them.
  • Arrange for an overnight stay in a "Traditional African Village" (Wade, owner of ChaChaCha Backpackers in Lusaka, can do this). Of course, because the locals have prepared for you, it is no longer 100% authentic, but you will get an idea of the hardships Zambians face.

Work

Unemployment in Zambia is rampant. The government has never passed any minimum wage legislation. Nevertheless, Zambians accept low-paying jobs, because there are few other options.

As for tourists, temporary work is likely to be difficult to secure. Although there is a substantial ex-pat community in Zambia, most of these individuals are contracted by international agencies; by and large, they did not come to Zambia and then find work. Persistence and connections might pay off, but outside of the few hostels or Western-oriented bars, a tourist should not expect to find ready employment.

Stay safe

Women should avoid going to bars alone. Furthermore, men should avoid purchasing drinks for Zambian women they meet casually in bars; this is an invitation to spend the night.

As the Kwacha has been declining, it often takes fistfuls of cash to purchase items. Be careful about flashing money.

While it's possible to get a good exchange rate from an INDIVIDUAL money-changer on the street, you should avoid changing money with GROUPS of men. They are likely running a scam.

Generally, Zambians are friendly people. However -- as with any location -- be careful about walking at night, especially if you've been drinking. There are few streetlights, and many of the locals are very poor.

Stay healthy

Drinking tap water in the cities is potentially risky, unless either (a) you have a strong stomach, or (b) you are at a restaurant or hotel that caters to foreigners. If neither of these conditions apply to you, you should probably stick with the bottled stuff.

The HIV infection rate is about 25%. Do not have unprotected sex.

Zambia is a malarial country. Especially at dusk, you should make every effort to cover exposed skin with clothing or insect repellent. Alternatively, effective malarial prophylaxis exists.

Respect

Zambians follow a strict patriarchal society -- men are afforded more respect than women, and older men are respected more than younger men. You might find, however, that a white person is afforded the most respect of all. A holdover from Colonial times, this might make a traveler uncomfortable, but this is largely a Zambian's way of being courteous. Accept their hospitality.

Zambians are a curious people. To a Western mindset, this might be interpreted as unnecessarily staring at you or talking about you in front of you. Be prepared to answer lots of questions about yourself.

Zambians love to shake hands, and you should oblige them. However, Zambians often like to hold hands for the duration of a conversation. This should not be interpreted as anything sexual; they are merely trying to "connect" with you. If you feel uncomfortable, simply pull your hand away.

Women should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially as they travel away from Lusaka. (Thighs, to Zambian men, are huge turn-ons.) Low-cut tops, however, while discouraged, are not nearly as provocative.

Finally, when meeting a Zambian -- even to ask a question -- you should always say hello and ask how they are. Properly greeting a Zambian is very important. They are uncomfortable with the Western notion of simply "getting to the point."

Contact

The country code for Zambia is "260." The city code for Lusaka is "1." The city code for most other towns is "2."

However, phone service both within Zambia and into Zambia is very hit-or-miss. In large cities, you are more likely to get regular, dependable phone service, but it is by no means a guarantee. For this reason, many urban Zambians rely almost exclusively on cell phones. The farther you travel from Lusaka, the less likely you are to maintain a good connection.

International calling rates can be as high as $3 per minute.

Internet cafes are springing up in Zambia, but again, connections can be sporadic and very slow. Moreover, because constant electricity is not a guarantee, some Internet cafes operate backup generators, which can be extremely costly. Be prepared to see Internet cafe charges as high as 25 cents per minute. Some hotels might offer Internet connections to their guests.

External links

Comprehensive, illustrated Guide to Travel in Zambia -- http://www.zambiatourism.com/

Zambia Online, the National Home Page of Zambia -- http://www.zambia.co.zm/

Times of Zambia Home page -- http://www.times.co.zm/

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